Our vindictive president, now unshackled by his frightened followers in Congress, may well be teed up to punish his perceived political enemies. And we needn’t exercise much imagination to envision how this loaded-gloved counterpuncher might weaponize his executive authority.
Because he’s done it already. Many, many times.
He did it in the Ukraine affair, of course, when he tried to use taxpayer funds to extort a foreign leader into smearing a political opponent. Most of his abuses, however, have happened closer to home.
Consider the selectively punitive antitrust actions undertaken by this administration, which is otherwise not exactly known for caring about market concentration.
In the case of AT&T’s acquisition of Time Warner, for instance, some economists and career civil servants raised legitimate concerns about the merger’s possible effects on competition. But Trump tried to block it for political reasons, because he disliked Time-Warner-owned CNN.
We know this because he repeatedly ordered underlings such as former National Economic Council director Gary Cohn to kill the merger, as reported by the New Yorker’s Jane Mayer. We also know it because Trump’s own campaign issued a press release in 2016 pledging he’d block it: “AT&T . . . is now trying to buy Time Warner and thus the wildly anti-Trump CNN. Donald Trump would never approve such a deal.”
The Justice Department’s challenges to the merger lost twice in federal court, and the merger was ultimately allowed to go through. The White House has since refused to turn over documents requested by Congress that could show whether and how Trump tried to intervene in the case. (Disclosure: I am a contributor to CNN.)
Similarly, the administration is abusing the antitrust system to punish perceived enemies in the auto industry.
The administration is rolling back fuel efficiency rules. When several major automakers worked out a deal with California to set their fuel standards above federal requirements — and thereby give themselves the regulatory certainty they need to plan for the future — Trump chose to retaliate. He had his Justice Department launch a bogus antitrust investigation into the car companies that crossed him, too.
Elsewhere, he has allegedly tried to use federal procurement to punish perceived enemies — in particular, Amazon, because the company’s chief executive, Jeff Bezos, personally owns The Post.
According to a recent memoir by a top aide to former defense secretary Jim Mattis, in the summer of 2018, the president “called and directed Mattis to ‘screw Amazon’ by locking them out of a chance to bid” on a lucrative defense contract. Trump has also publicly attacked Amazon’s contract with the U.S. Postal Service; and my Post colleagues have reported that Trump personally pushed then-Postmaster General Megan Brennan to double the rate the Postal Service charges the retail giant.
Economic punishment is hardly the only weapon available to the president.
On Wednesday night, his acting homeland security secretary announced (on Fox News, of course) that the department has stopped enrolling or re-enrolling New Yorkers in Global Entry and other expedited traveler programs, in retribution for state “sanctuary” policies. And for years, Trump has openly called for the Justice Department to prosecute his political adversaries. He pressured senior law enforcement officials, including former attorney general Jeff Sessions, to appoint a second special counsel to investigate Hillary Clinton.
If we haven’t seen too many heads on pikes yet, that’s presumably because many of his alleged head-piking attempts have been thwarted by other officials: Cohn, Mattis, Brennan and Sessions all reportedly refused Trump’s orders to weaponize their respective agencies.
But in some cases, their agencies pursued the outcome Trump wanted anyway — which we can hope was the consequence of legitimate policymaking, rather than payback. Even if it was motivated by good intentions, though, Trump’s public attempts to intervene for political reasons have muddied the waters. It’s become increasingly hard to tell whether government agencies are acting in the public’s interest, or Trump’s.
Which means he’s taken down at least one of his intended targets: Americans’ confidence in rule of law.